Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942)

Despite his father’s reputation as a heterosexual pornographer who donated thousands of pornographic volumes to the British Museum, English Arts & Crafts designer C. R. Ashbee was gay. He came of age in a time when homosexuality was illegal, known as “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Ashbee was a member of the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society founded in 1897 for the cultivation of a homosexual ethos. To cover his homosexuality, Roberts married Janet Forbes, daughter of a wealthy London stockbroker. CRA, as he was known, had admitted his sexual orientation to his future wife shortly after he proposed. Nevertheless, they married in 1898 and, after 13 years of rocky marriage (including a serious affair on the part of Janet), had four children.

Ashbee was a prime mover of the English Arts and Crafts movement that took its craft ethic from the works of John Ruskin and its co-operative structure from the socialism of William Morris. Ashbee established the influential Guild and School of Handicraft in 1888 in London, producing metalwork, jewelry and enamels as well as hand-wrought copper, wrought iron work and furniture. Personally, Ashbee was also involved in house design, including furniture and decoration, and utilitarian items such as fireplaces.

Ashbee founded the Guild with the revolutionary idea that training in art and design could be conducted alongside actual production, a dramatic departure from contemporary practice. He sought to restore lost traditions associated with preindustrial production and the bonds of comradeship that he thought humanized the workshop, and urged that silversmiths, craftsmen, and designers should work together.

The Guild's chief production and best known crafts were metalwork, silverware, and furniture. In contrast to machine produced wares, the Guild's metalwork featured a hammered texture finish, which communicated human endeavor and a personal touch. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Ashbee had achieved international fame. He exhibited in most of the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions, and often saw his work discussed and illustrated in journals and magazines. In 1896, Ashbee completed the first of several visits to America, where he met Frank Lloyd Wright, to whom some art historians contribute Ashbee's later change in ideology.

Ashbee still conceived of a haven from the trials of the city in a rural setting where he hoped to find a simpler life. In the summer of 1902, the Guild, comprised of some 150 men, women, and children, moved from Essex House, the stately mansion they occupied at Mile End, to the medieval town of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds.

Ultimately, Ashbee found himself forced to recognize the need to reconcile the claims and perceptions of the individual with the requirements of the mass market; he saw that the Arts and Crafts ideals of truth to material and individual expression would require application to the machine-made product. His decorative items fetch huge prices today. A single butter knife from 1901 recently fetched $2,300 at auction.

At right:
Mahogany etagère
Charles Robert Ashbee, 1895
Manufactured by Guild of Handicraft, London

Silver container with cover and glass liner
Charles Robert Ashbee, 1900
Metalwork, sterling silver, glass, enamel and mother-of-pearl.
Manufacturer: Guild of Handicraft

This magnificent Ashbee piano case is a masterpiece of Arts & Craft movement decorative style.

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